As more and more colleges and universities begin to reopen and then close down again due to coronavirus outbreaks, student affairs professionals and campus event organizers are being challenged to engage off-campus students with virtual events.
To mimic the camaraderie of on-campus communities and groups, colleges are now thinking outside the box (and within confines of a computer screen), encouraging students to interact remotely through a range of activities and events.
Virtual event ideas for college students
Some IRL events such as lectures and fireside chats can easily be translated to virtual through Zoom and learning webinars. Others may require a little more ingenuity. For example, instead of the usual on-site volunteering opportunities, college organizations may want to partner with a local school and tutor kids virtually. There’s also the fun stuff to remember like online yoga classes, Netflix parties, TikTok competitions, esports tournaments, and virtual field trips to museums.
Read on for some real-life event examples that colleges and universities have organized and learn some tips for hosting an engaging virtual event for students.
On August 12, Princeton University’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education hosted its eLab Demo Day, which attracted nearly 200 attendees. The event featured pitch presentations from the school’s eLab startup teams as well as demo stations following the presentation. Typically the event is held in person in front of an audience of investors, innovators, faculty, and entrepreneurs, but this year teams pitched their ideas via Zoom.
New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality hosts an event series called the “Tisch Center Fireside Chats” where industry leaders share their career journeys as well as their views on today’s pressing issues. Not surprisingly, the center’s first chat, which will take place on September 22, will focus on COVID-19, “but we tried to feature opportunities rather than just challenges,” explains Dr. Lynn Minnaert, academic chair and clinical associate professor at the center. For the upcoming char, the event speakers will be Scott Cullather and Kristina McCoobery of [INVNT GROUP] who will discuss how their agency evolved amid the pandemic and how students can future-proof their business by creating effective “phygital” events.
In addition to large webinars, the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality also hosts smaller, more intimate virtual “coffee chats.” Dr. Minnaert says that the center invites an industry professional to meet with small groups of students via Zoom. “The format is very open and interactive. Students can ask questions and take the conversation where they want it to go. These events are quick and easy to organize, which means we can be very responsive to student interests, even if they are more niche.”
Virtual student showcases
Back in July, the University of the Arts London (UAL) teamed up with IBM to showcase its 7,000 graduating artists. Like every other major education institution, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted UAL’s usual plans, which includes allowing the public to view student work. Instead, this year the school created the UAL Graduate Showcase, a digital platform highlighting talent in art, design, fashion, and performance.
“The physical shows are how students introduce themselves to the world. Without those shows, the future these graduates had spent three, four, or more years working towards was in jeopardy,” explains Joseph Kearins, strategy consultant for IBM’s Global Consumer Industries Centre of Competence. “A digital showcase space gave them a way to express their work and help them start their professional careers, and we did as much as we could in the time frame to make that a polished but flexible medium for those thousands of students spread across nearly 300 different courses.”
To bring the idea to life, IBM hosted virtual workshops with 100-plus stakeholders, ranging from students to staff to industry friends of the institution, starting in March.
In addition to showcasing their work, students could also link out to their own ecommerce stores, whether that was an account on an existing platform or a website they had built themselves. A red dot was placed on sold pieces, similar to IRL art galleries. “In the midst of a global disaster, we knew we had to help students with their hustle however we could,” Kearins says. “The opportunity to help students promote their work to a global audience was something the platform could do very well—in some respects even better than the physical shows.”
How to keep college students engaged
Just like in a work environment, students and faculty may find it difficult to stay focused while staring at a screen, so remember to use interactive features to keep folks on their toes. “The biggest challenge has been keeping students engaged during the event itself,” explains Gina Sesta, events coordinator at the Keller Center. “Many people are struggling with Zoom fatigue and it is hard to stay engaged for an extended period of time in front of the computer. Utilizing the poll feature has been particularly helpful to keep the attention of the audience, as well as using the tool Mural, which is a collaborative whiteboard space.”
Dr. Minnaert echoes that sentiment, saying that “a big challenge is to try and turn the attendees into active participants rather than just an audience.” To help with that, Minnaert and her team have made several adjustments to their event planning process. “We host shorter events now. It can be harder to remain focused in a virtual setting, so we keep most events to one hour maximum. We have also become intimately acquainted with different engagement tools in Zoom like the chat, Q&A, and polling functions. We make sure that our larger events are supported by an administrator who responds to chats and moderates the Q&A. At each stage, we want to make sure the attendees feel personally attended to.”
How to promote a virtual event to college students
Similar to in-person events, student organizers use social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to promote their events, as well as weekly emails and virtual activities calendars. For example, Princeton has deployed an interactive calendar for remote purposes. These types of online methods are common among schools since it’s harder to spread information via word of mouth or something as simple as a flyer.
“We try to get the word out about our events via as many channels as we can. While it is a bit labor intensive, we feel that this fall, more than ever, we need to make sure that everyone in our broader ‘family’ feels supported and connected,” Dr. Minnaert explains. She adds that for larger events, the school invites alumni, who they reach via mailing lists, LinkedIn, and an NYU platform called Violet Network.
Also, social media isn’t just a promotional tool, it also serves as a way for students to interact and network with each other, something that they would normally be able to do on campus. “Social media plays a role more broadly now though, beyond our events, in engaging our students and alumni,” Dr. Minnaert says. “We would usually host regular in-person events that allow our students and alumni to get to know each other and network. This fall, those events won’t be happening, so we have seen more activity in our LinkedIn group, for example. I think social media will be a big factor in how we maintain and grow our Tisch Center community this fall.”
Tips for planning a virtual event for students
Many colleges and universities such as Princeton offer organizers guidance on planning a virtual event including tips on making the event digitally accessible to those with visual and hearing impairments, steps for avoiding online abuse, a Zoom tutorial, and more.
In addition to the usual video conferencing platforms, planners should also consider utilizing new, Gen Z-friendly tech like TikTok to engage students. For example, encourage students to create content for an existing TikTok challenge or create your own with a unique hashtag for them to follow.
Above all, the key to creating an engaging virtual event for college students is to include them from the start. “UAL recognized right away that they needed strong participation and engagement from the student body throughout the design and development process,” Kearins explains. “This year’s graduating cohort numbered over 7,000 students, so it’s difficult to reach everyone, but UAL did a great job pulling together working groups from across the student body and we supported them, facilitating design workshops and conducting one-on-one user research interviews with the student community.”
Right now, both faculty and students are getting a lesson in navigating virtual learning environments, and part of that is figuring out how to offer the sense of community and fellowship that colleges are known for through virtual events.